Dominica XXV per Annum C
22 September 2019
In the Gospel selection we are told that “a rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his [that is, the rich man’s] property.” The steward was not managing well the property that did not belong to him, but belonged to the rich man. And so, the steward is called “on the carpet” and told “Prepare a full account of your stewardship.” The steward has to face reality that what he has been exercising control and authority over is actually not his property. The steward realizes he can’t go on living in the same way. He has to give an account for what he has done and for what he has failed to do. This frightening reality motivates the steward to act with urgency to quickly to establish a new future for himself. It is this urgent action to establish security that is what the parable encourages and teaches, what Jesus calls “acting prudently.” This parable can leave us wondering, “Is Jesus putting forward the example of a dishonest person to encourage us to be… dishonest?” No, the example of the dishonest steward is meant to grab attention for the real point of Jesus’ lesson. That lesson is that we must act prudently and decisively to establish our true and lasting security.
The word “stewardship” has a particularly evocative ring within these walls. Those of you who have been long-term parishioners know that our parish was established with a particular focus on being a stewardship parish, meaning that to be an active disciple here all parishioners are invited and expected to make a sacrificial commitment of their time, their talent, and their treasure to our common life here and to our work to form, support, and build the Kingdom of God in our midst. When the parish first began and we had nothing but a plot of empty land it was perhaps easier to see and to respond to the urgency of being a steward. After all, if we weren’t good stewards we’d have nothing but weeds growing up in an empty plot. But years later now, communicating the message of being stewards at St. Monica Church and communicating what that means for how we each use our time, our talent, and our treasure is, we might say, a bit more difficult… structures are already built, programs are in place, activities are already offered. We are no longer just a plot of empty land and so it can be easy now for each of us to fail to think about making an account of our stewardship to God when most of what we expect from a parish is already here. While I think it is important that each of us recalls our parish’s stewardship history, the truth is that there is another reason the word “stewardship” should be evocative for each of us… because far from being only a characteristic of our parish as an institution, the truth is that stewardship is a foundational habit of being a disciple. What we have care of, what we exercise authority and control over, is actually not ours. We are its stewards. It belongs to the One who is rich. And that is not just a generic rich man, but it is God Who is rich in all things, but Who bestows generous blessings upon us to use for His Kingdom. It is to this rich “man” that each of us must give an account of our stewardship. But still more, it is with this rich “man” that we are called into relationship because He has made us His stewards. So, what is our relationship to the things God gives us? To our time, our talent, and our treasure? Do we view them as exclusively ours? Is our focus to amass more for ourselves? Is my security in the fact that I believe God does and will provide for me? Or is it more in what I can provide for myself?
The start of a new formation year with summer travel over and regular activities back in swing is a good opportunity to focus on stewardship for the coming year. In the coming weeks I will focus one weekend on our parish’s financial position, on our stewardship of money and the need we have for sacrificial giving from each parishioner. But this weekend is a good opportunity to step back and to focus more broadly, more generally, on the call to be stewards of all of God’s gifts. In this way, before focusing on giving and parish finances, we can first listen to God’s word and pray and reflect upon the foundation of all stewardship: namely, that a basic habit of a disciple of Jesus is the recognition that all that we have is a gift from God. We are called to receive from God’s generosity, to care for what we receive, and to use it for His glory, knowing that ultimately we must return what we have to God, and, as we heard in the Gospel today, prepare a full account of our stewardship to the One who is rich and who is the source of all things.
In the parable our attention is grabbed because Jesus seems to be encouraging us to follow the example of a dishonest person. The steward is clearly cheating his master by stealing from what properly belongs to him in order to write off debts owed to the master. The steward does this to ingratiate himself to others such that when his master judges him poorly, he will have a new security among those who will want to repay him once he loses his role in the master’s house. We should not be confused about this parable. The parable commends the steward not for dishonesty but for acting prudently, more prudently than the children of light, that is you and I, to establish a lasting security for himself. When what he values is threatened the dishonest steward acts quickly and decisively to establish a new security. This is what Jesus commends: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What gets you to act with urgency and decisiveness when something you value is threatened? If you reflect on that, the answer to that, doesn’t that show you something of where you place your security? Then as a follow up it is critical to ask: Is your security placed in God, the things of God, His gifts to you here, and the offer of eternal life in Heaven? Or is what gets you to act with urgency a sign that your security is misplaced on something or someone else? We might do some soul searching and ask ourselves, do we feel better about ourselves when we have more recognition? More belongings? More power? More money? Or when we have less of these things, do we feel worse about ourselves and our life? These questions can be very revealing about where we place our security. None of us likes to be dependent on others. It often evokes fear. The pressure to secure our own future and to control our lives, we would have to admit, does not find support in the Scriptures (A Spirituality of Fundraising, Nouwen, pp. 31-32).
Jesus knows our need for security. He also knows that we can’t find that security, lasting security, when our heart is divided. In what lies our security? This is a good question to ask as we each reflect on the foundations of stewardship and how we either live well or not well that basic habit of being a disciple. As disciples we are called to be prudent in establishing our security in God, rather than placing a false security in the things of this world and material goods kept for ourselves. Jesus says: “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” We have to make a choice if we will find true and lasting security. In a few weeks I will address our shared responsibility as stewards for the financial needs of our parish. But today I think we have an invitation to consider the foundational lesson of stewardship: Namely, to recognize that what we have and what we use belongs to God and we are called to be trustworthy with what belongs to Him. As stewards our security must be placed in our relationship with God, over Whose goods we exercise stewardship. Any other security we seek to make for ourselves will not be lasting and in fact would be a false god. Jesus knows our need for security. He knows we cannot find that lasting security with divided hearts. And so he teaches us today, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”